Can the elder statesmen of rock 'n roll still produce the goods now he over 70 years of age?
The current incarnation of Paul McCartney is a curious study of human nature and the fickle opinions of the masses. Pinned as the straight-laced, goody-goody of the most influential band of all time, McCartney was forever doomed to live in the shadow of Jon Lennon and the far reaching legacy he left behind.
And it’s not hard to see why…John takes up with controversial artist Yoko Ono, goes into primal scream therapy, emerges with the cathartic statement Plastic Ono Band, descends into drug hell, fights the establishment at every turn, settles in New York, bottoms out, finds redemption and the start of inner peace before being gunned down. McCartney for his part takes up with heiress photographer Linda Eastman, gets married, starts pushing out kids, forms the middle of the road Wings which includes his wife on keyboards even though she can’t play or sing worth a shit, turns vegan, becomes increasingly middle aged as his musical output more embarrassing (ahem…”Mull of Kintyre”) and surrenders all relevance.
While this is a glib overview it is extremely accurate. For most of the 80’s and leading into the 90’s, Paul McCartney was suffering comparisons to a man that would never grow old and his reputation and place in history that was so richly deserved. Then real life happened…Linda McCartney suddenly passes away and the world comes to view Paul as the grieving widower who deeply loved his wife. Then the world was shocked when he took up with Heather Mills who’s immediately branded a gold digger and when they divorced in 2006…well everyone decided that Paul McCartney was actually quite the musical legend almost out of sympathy.
With public opinion now firmly in his corner the man himself has managed to come level with his status as one of the most important artists in musical history. Further more he set about addressing the poor 80’s output of substandard solo work. Post Linda, McCartney retreated into the past to find a way forward releasing a clutch of albums that showcased his love of rock ‘n roll. Most were recorded quickly with a small band and breathed new life into his legacy.
His last album however, Memory Almost Full is largely viewed as a misstep. This was his first album post-Mills and theories abound as to why the album was unfocused and at time unwieldy. Others also pointed out the title was an anagram for “for my soulmate LLM”. I don’t think it’s out of the realms of possibility to say McCartney was unsure of where he was heading. Which leads us to now…
Perhaps looking to stretch his musical legs, McCartney had initial sessions with four producers (Mark Ronson, Ethan Johns, Paul Epworth and Giles Martin) and then settles on Giles Martin for the bulk of the album. This results in an eclectic mix of songs and styles. Perhaps it’s the fact he’s past 70 years of age and he doesn’t give a fuck, or that he spent too much time with producer Youth doing dance projects as The Firemen or most boringly, he just wants to do something different. Macca seems at ease going where his where his production team takes him. This is reflected in the musical output as a more accurate album title would be Results May Vary.
Not surprisingly all tracks produced by Mark Ronson sound current yet of another time. The title track “New” may be the most Beatles thing Paul has done since that band was together. With the whimsy of “Penny Lane” and the drama-laced horns reminiscent “Got To Get You Into My Life”, it has an unforced grace about it which made it a logical first single choice. Ditto the second Ronson effort “Alligator”, while not a Fab Four-ish as “New” it’s so full of 60’s harpsichord and drum fills you feel like you’ve stepped into a Jefferson Airplane album.
The strongest track on the album is “Queenie Eye” which was produced by Paul Epworth. While retro as anything else on this set, it has a grove and chord progression that Elton John would have killed to record. It sounds like Paul is having fun with the experimental edge and it seeps into every part of this track. Epworths other main contribution was album opener “Save Us” which is straight outta of 80’s hell.
Which leads us to Giles Martin. For those not on the ball this would be the son of long time Beatles producer George Martin. While he has a solid resume as a producer, he does not have anywhere near the credentials of Ronson or Epworth. Maybe it was the material he was presented with but his songs lack spirit and imagination. The time that songs show some spark (“I Can Bet”) it is only fleeting. For the most part things fall flat as it sound like one middle-aged man and an aging hippy trying to fight drum machines and keyboards. It gets a little ugly (“Road”, “Looking At Her”) or astoundingly bland (“On My Way To Work”).
Why McCartney choose Martin of the other two is anyone’s guess. Maybe it was loyalty to Martin who has overseen the majority of work on the Beatles catalogue in the past couple of decades. Maybe it was his safety net if the more experimental collaboration of Ronson and Epworth fell short of expectation. I don’t know. Perhaps the most maddening things is that on the deluxe edition of this album, the two Martin songs (“Turned Out, “Get Me Out Of Here”) are easily the best Martin produced track on the set.
“Turned Out” is a very reminiscent of the Tom Petty/Jeff Lynne collaborations of the 80’s and “Get Me Out Of Here” is a great acoustic dirge, with some scuffed-up vocals and bluesy acoustic strumming. Most of all they sound like fun. No bland here.
Truth be told, the best parts of this set are when McCartney let’s his 60’s hang out. Maybe a guy like Mark Ronson is unafraid to push McCartney in that direction where as the McCartney/Martin team deliberately push away from that style because of their history, I don’t know. But for the handful of tunes where Paul gives in to his inner Beatle, everything is all right.
The 411: Does anyone really care at this point? I’m sure Paul McCartney is only in this for the fun these days and isn’t looking to push boundaries or change the world. I mean, he’s already done that once. Doing it twice would just be greedy. For it’s part, the songs on this set are uneven and the best moments are fairly easy to find. Hopefully McCartney will decide that he should write songs like a Beatle instead of a Wing(er) and give us one great solo album while he can.